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4 Key Capabilities for a 5G Slice Management Tool

by Adam Dorenter Adam Dorenter No Comments

No matter how you slice it, your slice manager matters a lot

If you were to ask mobile network operators what keeps them up at night, “5G slice management” probably wouldn’t be their first answer. Or their second, third, fourth… well, you get the point. The fact is that slicing is just a very small slice of 5G rollouts at first, with operators deploying only a few 5G slices initially: one for consumers, another for enterprises, maybe a third for an MVNO partner, but nothing so elaborate that managing those slices becomes a cause for sleepless nights.

Operators who ignore 5G slice management altogether, however, could be in for a rude awakening. By 2023, 5G users are expected to make up about half of all mobile subscribers. When that happens, operators will go from a few slices to a few hundred and, eventually, a few thousand. There will be slices for every app (e.g., Netflix, Facebook, YouTube), for every enterprise, and even for every application within an enterprise (e.g., manufacturing floor sensors, delivery vehicles, virtual private networks, videoconferencing). And managing all those slices will be unmanageable without an automated slice management tool.

Now that we’ve got you thinking about 5G slice management, the question is What should you look for in a slice manager? It ultimately comes down to four key capabilities:

Operational Agility

When 5G ramps up, operators are going to need to create slices quickly. Think sushi chef fast. So, their slice manager has to support a DevOps framework that allows them to create, spin up, iterate, and spin down slices dynamically to meet rapidly changing subscriber demands. Ultimately, slices will define the services you sell; the more slices you have, the more revenue streams you’ll have coming into your business.

Support for Virtualization

It’s a given that any operator implementing 5G capabilities will already be pretty far down the virtualization/container path. 5G slice management needs to support a virtualized environment, which brings to the fore unique concerns. For example, how do you measure NIC bandwidth, CPU, memory, and disk space on virtualized hardware? And how do you prioritize and balance traffic when you only have a single rack of virtualized servers in an edge deployment? The slice manager needs to be able to capture these metrics and re-balance or re-tune traffic in as close to real time as possible.

Service Optimization

Conserving physical resources is important, but so is serving up great subscriber experiences. Service optimization isn’t a new concept for operators, but it requires a new process in 5G. Today, operators optimize their services by drilling down into their data to pinpoint areas for improvement and then making manual adjustments accordingly. With a 5G slice manager, operators can now do this automatically. For example, a slice manager may detect congestion issues and decide to optimize Netflix videos through video compression. This traffic could be moved to an automatically instantiated slice in order to prevent impact to other services. A lot of these automated optimization capabilities will be enabled by a new network function defined in 5G, the network data analytics function (NWDAF).

Intelligent Orchestration

Orchestration in this sense refers to integration within an ecosystem of solutions. Some 5G vendors will try to sell operators a complete ecosystem based on their own technology and, yes, you would expect tight integration in such a case, but that’s not necessarily the best approach. Our approach is that best-of-breed is best because it gives operators more flexibility to pick and choose the right components. You might have a RAN slice manager from one vendor, a transport slice manager from another, and a core network slice manager from Affirmed. Choosing an orchestration solution built on open standards ensures that everything works together, allowing operators to perform service activation, subscriber provisioning, and slice management all from one shared platform.

The intelligent part of the intelligent orchestration refers to out-of-the-box, automated capabilities. Affirmed, for example, includes a lot of prebuilt content and wizards in its slice manager to help operators quickly and automatically set up, customize, and manage slices. The advantage here isn’t just speed but accuracy, as automated slice management reduces common, manual errors.

So, now that you know what to look for in a 5G slice manager—and that Affirmed can deliver those capabilities today with its UnityCloud 5G core solution—maybe you’ll rest a little easier. But don’t rest too long, or you could risk missing out on your slice of the 5G revenue pie.

If you plan on serving up network slices quickly, you’ll need the right cooks in the kitchen

by Adam Dorenter Adam Dorenter No Comments

If you look at most telecommunications networks today, they’re divided into a kind of vanilla/chocolate/strawberry mix of services where you may have an enterprise flavor, a standard consumer flavor, and a high-usage consumer flavor. When 5G arrives, however, those networks will need to look a lot more like Baskin-Robbins’ 1,300 flavors. What telcos will do to create those flavors is customize the network experience using thousands of different policy-driven network slices with unique SLAs, security features, latency and bandwidth requirements, pricing, and so on. This blog outlines what network slice management solutions for telco operators and what it should look like in 5G.

Benefits of Network Slicing for Telco Operators

The benefit of network slicing is twofold: to create differentiated services that people will pay for (e.g., high-bandwidth virtual reality slices, low-latency mobile healthcare slices) and more effectively manage network traffic and costs (e.g., IoT and online gaming will clearly have different pricing and priorities). The challenge of network slicing is that this is largely unknown territory for telcos, which are accustomed to cautiously rolling out new services and managing just a handful of pricing models (e.g., unlimited plans, per-gigabyte pricing).

The concept of a network slice technically dates back to 3G, when it was called an access point name (APN). In those days, APNs worked like a giant, best-effort bucket: telco operators would pour their water into a single bucket, poke a bunch of holes in the bottom and customers would get more or less water depending on how big a hole in the bucket they had. From that perspective, I guess you could say that APNs “pail” in comparison to today’s network slicing capabilities.

Network slicing gives operators a much more granular level of control over how they allocate their bandwidth, arguably their greatest asset. They can deliver higher SLAs around revenue-generating apps, give lower priority to video streaming that doesn’t generate revenue for them (ahem, Netflix), wrap security policies around enterprise traffic for added privacy, and so on. Actually, a lot of “so ons” – like thousands of them.

This is very different from the way bandwidth is managed in the 4G world. For example, in a 4G network, there might be one big slice for all consumer services. We’ve even seen telco operators adopt this same model for their initial 5G rollouts. But once you get past the trial stage for 5G, the goal is to increase the number of slices on day two, three, etc. until you have network slices for nearly every imaginable scenario: video gamers, casual users, small business e-commerce, healthcare apps, etc.

Network Slice Management Functions

As you might imagine, how telcos will stand up and manage these slices is a topic of much conversation. Industry organizations such as 3GPP, GSM and ONAP have all weighed in on what they believe slice management should look like in 5G. Basically, it boils down to three key network functions (and you might want to have your alphabet-soup decoder ring on hand for this) – CSMF, NSMF, and NSSMF:

  • CSMF (Communication Service Management Function), which acts as the user interface for slice management;
  • NSMF (Network Slice Management Function), which controls the slice, end to end, across the RAN, transport and core domains (also referred to as subnets);
  • NSSMF (Network Slice Subnet Management Function), which applies the NSMF’s lifecycle management commands (e.g., instantiate, scale, terminate, move) within a particular subnet.

The NSSMF is where most of the slice intelligence resides. It takes a command from the NSMF, such as “build a slice,” and activates it by doing all the behind-the-scenes work of function selection, storage, configuration, and communication. And this brings up another important point that industry organizations have focused on: creating API standards that dictate how all this communication and interaction should take place between the NSSMF and other network elements.

Within 3GPP is a group known as SA5 that is working on a reference architecture for network slice management. We believe it’s in the best interest of every NSSMF vendor to follow these standards (it’s something we’ve done from the beginning with our own NSSMF solution for the mobile core subnet). Why? Because a best-of-breed approach to slice management is the best course of action for most telco operators. Yes, there are vendors that offer a soup-to-nuts solution, but in our experience, no two operators have the same slicing requirements. A one-size-fits-all approach to slicing just doesn’t fit that reality.

We view the best-of-breed approach as following one of two courses. There’s the multi-vendor approach, where operators engage with a bunch of different vendors to populate a complete slice management solution: a RAN NSSMF from vendor A, a transport NSSMF from vendor B, a CSMF from vendor C, etc. And then there’s the standards-driven approach, where an operator engages with an organization like the ONAP Project to build their own network slice management solution. This last approach may have the most potential for success, as we’ve seen in some of our own customer projects.

The Impact of Network Slice Management

Network slice management will have a significant impact on how quickly and effectively operators can monetize their 5G investments. Automation, orchestration, and observability also have important roles to play in the number and kinds of slices your network can spin up. The appetite for customized slices is clearly there. The question is: Do you have the right tools in your kitchen to handle the demand? It’s a topic I’ll discuss further in my continuing series of network slicing blogs.

How to Orchestrate a 5G Revolution

by Adam Dorenter Adam Dorenter No Comments

Around the world, mobile operators are beginning to roll out their plans for next-generation mobile networks. Some carriers have even begun to refer to these rollouts as 5G—although, in fairness to the future, these have been more like 5G phase one, in the sense that some carriers have realized more bandwidth and better speeds, but the 5G services themselves have yet to arrive.

That will change soon. Companies like Turkcell, the largest mobile operator in Turkey, with more than 68 million subscribers, are bringing 5G transformations into the mobile core, laying the foundation for the 5G services of tomorrow. And, with the recent events of the COVID-19 pandemic driving the acceleration of mobile digital platform adoption years ahead of planned schedule – that transformation is arriving not a moment too soon and is depending upon orchestration to be the key delivery vehicle for these 5g services.

A few years ago, Affirmed and Turkcell embarked on a journey toward 5G transformation that included network virtualization. Using Affirmed’s standards-based Network Functions Virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) architecture, Turkcell has already virtualized more than half of its network services and plans to virtualize 75 percent of its network services by the end of 2020. This is critical because a virtualized infrastructure is the foundation for creating, deploying, and managing 5G services cost-efficiently and at scale. Those last two points—cost-efficiency and scale—are very important right now, because mobile operators are still trying to figure out how to monetize 5G services, while at the same time demand for these services skyrockets because of COVID-19.

 

The Role of Automation & Management

The key to delivering these services economically, and at scale, is the tight coupling of concepts central to automation, management, and observability. This allows operators, like Turkcell, to optimize the deployment of virtual network functions (VNFs), shortening time to revenue, while also reducing operational expense, using a decentralized, zero-touch provisioning scheme.  These benefits will only become amplified as network expansion moves towards the edge and services like IoT drive massive amounts of end devices. 

Delivering on these requirements is Affirmed’s Network Function Orchestration (NFVO) platform. A MANO based domain service lifecycle framework, it features standards-compliant northbound interface functionality and southbound support for both Affirmed functions and third parties.  Composed of an Orchestrator, VNFM, and Service Assurance components, the solution fundamentally transforms how network operators manage a mobile core network, dramatically simplifying service creation through workflow-based service provisioning and just enough visibility to drive intelligent closed-loop automation.

 

Turkcell’s Decision to Use Affirmed

In the recent announcement, Turkcell disclosed they will be using Affirmed’s NFVO platform (NFV Orchestration) to roll out both 4G and next-generation 5G services. A major factor in Turkcell’s decision is Affirmed’s ability to support multiple virtual infrastructure managers (Multi-VIM), which gives Turkcell flexibility to deploy new services using public, private, on-prem, or cloud-based resources. Other significant solution features include:

  • Integration of Affirmed and partner functions, and in addition, functions from third-party vendors, where those functions reside in the mobile core network domain. 
  • Function support via either standards-based Generic VNFM, where a vendor is compliant or integration of non-standard SVNFM, where a vendor is not.
  • A common operating set consisting of onboard, create, instantiate, scale, heal, upgrade, and terminate actions, all accessed through purpose-built dashboards.
  • Resource management to discover, analyze, and reserve function resource requirements, with advanced analysis and reporting of capacity vs demand.
  • Cross-domain provisioning of the resource and transport infrastructures, supporting compute, controller and access switch LCM tasks
  • A managed automation artifact program, where Affirmed publishes regular function artifact updates to a digital marketplace for consumption and use.

To further illustrate business value, consider the current COVID-19 restrictions. Deploying technical teams globally to install, provision, and maintain physical resources around the world is impractical and, in some cases, impossible. Where-as, the ability to perform these management tasks remotely, and automatically, delivers more than just a competitive advantage. As the demand for network services increases—both in urban and rural areas, across consumer and commercial use-cases—being able to quickly expand capacity, or proactively reduce latency, will be critical to protecting customer experience and operator reputation.

 

The Outlook for 5G Services

Despite the current uncertainties, the future looks bright for 5G services to transform the way the world operates. The timetables for telemedicine, long-distance learning, virtual/augmented reality, low latency gaming, drone-based deliveries, and other 5G applications have been accelerated and the demand for them is likely to continue growing.

We’re proud to be working with carriers like Turkcell to improve the future of communications—a future we’ve been working toward together for years. Now, more than ever, mobile operators must help the world stay connected. Whether it’s moving network functions into the cloud or bringing 5G services to market sooner, Affirmed Networks is here to help.